Prose that sings…or just confuses?

“Like silent mariners, the clouds skittered by, their jejune iconoclasm contrasting with the blue sky’s sterile composure, making Khendra sigh with longing and a deeply felt miasma of melancholy.”

Man, that’s beautiful writing, isn’t it?

Well, maybe it’s a beautiful series of syllables, but it’s not really good writing. It’s unclear. Except for the beginning of the sentence — Like silent mariners, the clouds skittered by — the images it conveys are vague, set within confusing language that takes the reader out of an emotion the writer might want to convey. It makes the reader stumble. 

I penned that confusing descriptive sentence some time ago after editing a manuscript filled with prose that sang. But occasionally, the song lost its lyricism and turned into cacophony, a jumble of noise conveying little except confusion.

This happens to many writers, myself included, when we’re swept away with emotion,  eager to share feelings or images with the reader, to find the phrases that will connect the reader to what we feel and see in our minds.

And that’s where an editor should step in and not be afraid to question the author’s intention. Whenever I pen a margin note about unclear language set within beautiful-sounding prose, I wonder if the author will roll her eyes or cringe at the comment, thinking me a language purist who’s not sophisticated enough to understand what she is trying to communicate.

That said, to be a good editor, you have to accept the possibility an author might not like what you say, and might even pass judgment on your level of sophistication or understanding. The author can reject your comments and stet the original language, after all.

A good editor won’t be intoxicated by lovely words strung together in what seems like lyrical writing but in reality might be a disorderly — and maybe even lazy — way of communicating a feeling, image, or characterization.

Prose that sings moves readers. Prose that confuses pulls readers from your story.


About Libby Malin Sternberg

I'm a hard-working freelance editor and novelist with many books to my name, published by large and small presses -- everyone from Harlequin to Dorchester to Sourcebooks to Bancroft Press. And I have some indie-pubbed books to my name, as well. I've won some awards for books, been an Edgar nominee for a teen mystery, and have a film option on one novel. I write women's fiction and romance mostly, but do have teen mysteries on my back list. I also offer editing services to authors -- everything from light copy edits to more comprehensive developmental edits. References are available upon request. A major publisher employs me as a regular copy editor, and I used to edit for a small independent press, even making recommendations for manuscript acquisitions. Contact me at LibbyMalinSternberg (at) gmail (dot) com. Check out my books at
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